Synopsis: A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications. (Source)
Our very existence is built around the need to communicate, and more importantly, understand one another. Arrival deconstructs this idea from the ground up, exploring language as a measure of intent, an art form, and depending on how you look at it, a weapon. It’s a stunning landmark of a film, one that tackles the age-old idea of first contact with ideas and social sensitivity, rather than explosions or noisy, meaningless gunfights. In that way, director Denis Villeneuve’s latest is everything we need in this time of social disarray, a challenge that we can, and should do better, hinting that the best way to conquer division is to simply listen with an open heart and react with compassion. As far as I’m concerned, this is a modern masterpiece that resonates with the utmost of urgency.
The story picks up on the day they arrive. 12 gigantic, alien ships hover strategically across the globe. The world is plunged into chaos while its leaders attempt to figure out the basic questions: Why are they here? Where did they come from? What do they want? Without any answers forthcoming, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) of the U.S. Army enlists the help of linguist expert, Dr. Louise Brooks (Amy Adams), and theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). As the 12 nations involved grow progressively weary and hostile towards the visitors and each other, Brooks and Donnelly scramble to find answers which could either unite or destroy the human race.
No matter how you look at the film, whether it’s as an intelligent, pulse-pounding procedural or a story that probes all of humanity’s hopes, fears and capacity for good, it delivers and then some. The most noticeable thing about it is the tone – there’s a layer of unease and uncertainty, but right from the get, Villeneuve’s direction and Eric Heisserer’s script is all about wonder and exploration, rather than violence or physical threat. Like the best sci-fi, the film’s extraordinary elements (the aliens) are more a catalyst than anything else, with the true struggle occurring within the mind of its characters, as they grapple with issues of paranoia, distrust and a fear of the unknown. Though the story hinges on completely real emotions and ideas, even touching upon the things that make life living despite all the pain and hurt, there are still a lot of heady plot twists and surprises, which come together to create a special spectacle for the mind. Without spoiling too many things, the film finds a way to completely pull the rug out from underneath us, constantly shifting whenever we think we’ve got it figured out, without ever losing sight of humanity as its focal point.
If there’s another thing to love about Villeneuve’s approach, it would have to be the level of realism that grounds his aliens and their language, both in written and verbal form. In fact, there isn’t a single aspect about the extraterrestrial visitors that doesn’t feel well thought out. From the designs of their ship to the creatures themselves, everything is simple and timeless, allowing their symbolism to speak louder than their presence. In this way, they make a huge impression, texturally weaving into the film’s themes without clouding them.
The ensemble is strong as well, with great turns from Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner and even Michael Stuhlbarg, but Amy Adams is the film’s guiding light. Pretty much everything is built around her character, Louise, and Adams is perfect at embodying the story’s themes with clarity and conviction. The emotional ground which the story covers is pretty vast, but she gives it both the grand scale and intimacy it requires, really helping to sell the film’s complexity, especially during its final act. Throughout the hustle and bustle, she cuts through the noise, making Louise an empathetic anchor that we really connect with.
I could go on forever about Arrival, but, ironically, words don’t do it justice. It’s a soulful, masterfully constructed story that should be felt above all else. Though its a film that’s all too familiar with our self-destructive ways, it’s one that chooses to uphold a piercing sense of hope, depicting its characters as intelligent people who truly want to avoid violence at all cost – a rare thing indeed. The ending also happens to be one of the smartest, most rewarding conclusions of the year, a mindtrip and that appeals to both the brain and heart. Villeneuve’s latest finds the director in peak form, armed with a message that’s as important now, as it’s ever been.